July 30, 2018 9:57:37 AM
OXFORD -- OK, well, so no one is going to prison over "roadgate."
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves has claimed vindication. He would never-ever seek personal favors from state agencies and, besides, his own exhaustive search shows there's nothing (in writing) to show otherwise.
Attorney General Jim Hood, accused by Reeves of grandstanding, also stands accused by his rival of not knowing the law.
Mississippi Department of Transportation Executive Director Melinda McGrath has affirmed and clarified what she said, but is not of the opinion that any laws were broken or anything.
As McGrath tells it, nothing out of the ordinary occurred, which, in a way, is an indictment itself.
As a break from July's heat, Mississippians have been treated to an inside look at power politics. For most, the saga has been entertainment. Those who are truly angry -- or should be -- are those who have lost jobs or face longer commutes because Mississippi has failed its basic duty of road and bridge maintenance and has, as part of this picture, allocated road dollars based on legislative preference instead of demonstrated need.
Lakeland Drive, which extends to suburbia east from downtown Jackson, is one of the state's busiest arteries. In 2014, the Legislature specifically allocated $43 million for the widening of Lakeland. Nothing wrong with that.
A kerfuffle arose, however, after a more or less routine comment by McGrath that a $2 million spur to improve the connection to Lakeland from 150 or so homes in gated areas was driven by "political influence." And, as it happens, one of those homes is the residence of the lieutenant governor. McGrath wasn't complaining. She was describing the situation.
Reeves responded that he had nothing to do with anything.
MDOT Central District Commissioner Dick Hall, former state senator and current fellow Republican to Reeves, issued a triple mea culpa: McGrath was right, Reeves was right, too, and it was all Hall's fault. The commissioner also "stayed" work on the spur.
Hood said officials are expected to lobby for their constituents, but it's criminal to personally profit. Given that the Legislature has exempted itself from keeping the kind of records other public bodies are required to retain, Hood warned that any and all correspondence related to the spur be preserved. If, for instance, Reeves had a hand in the deal to increase the value of his home, deleting or destroying correspondence could be obstruction of justice.
With Reeves and Hood, a Democrat, the odds-on finalists to succeed Gov. Phil Bryant, discussion of the spur may or may not go away. The last volley featured Reeves holding forth at a press conference to say, (1) he doesn't have to do anything Jim Hood says, (2) his own records search initiated at his own command has assured him there is no written record of anything improper and (3) it's Hood who is trying to use the situation for personal (and political) profit.
McGrath, as the only non-elected person in the affray, may be the most credible. Her statement is that Reeves' minions were routinely told that relocation work by utilities in the path of the spur was pending. Based on that, she wrote to Reeves, "Your staff took the highly unusual step of communicating directly with utility providers and worked to resolve various issues to keep the project on schedule -- using political authority that MDOT does not possess."
So, guilty but not guilty. "Interested" in the project, but not giving orders.
The backdrop, here, as referenced, is that after the Legislature failed to fund repairs for the worst of Mississippi's roads and bridges, Bryant, in April, ordered about 102 of them condemned and blockaded for safety. As summer winds down, hundreds of school bus drivers will join thousands of Mississippians already having to find alternate (longer) routes to perform their daily duties. These folks, already miffed about official priorities, are likely to be a bit more miffed, along with county supervisors and school board members who are taking the heat from constituents.
Of course, Reeves -- perhaps the most tight-fisted official in state history -- has announced a plan. He says that the state can beg and borrow $1 billion (once he is governor) so he can, with the Legislature's blessing, direct repairs from the Office of the Governor.
Here's the deal, though. Any eighth-grader can tell you that providing "shared services" such as roads, utilities, fire and police is what governments were created to do. These things are Job One everywhere. Fundamental. Before anything else.
At least that's how it's supposed to be.
Charlie Mitchell is an associate dean of journalism at the University of Mississippi. Email reaches him at [email protected]
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